The Ponyboy effect
The enduring relevance of S.E. Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’
To commemorate the massive successes of “The Outsiders” and its movie adaptation, S.E. Hinton sat in the well of a theater in Circle Cinema last month and answered questions from 250 fans. The event celebrating the book’s 50th anniversary was sold out and I couldn’t get into the room. Instead, I sat in the lobby, where it was live-streamed.
In a particularly poignant moment, one fan asked Hinton how she felt about the enormous influence the book has had—sometimes in practical, life-altering ways—on so many readers.
“Well,” Hinton said, “It’s one thing when people tell me they loved the book, or it got them into reading, all that. That’s great, I love that.” She paused and looked into her lap. “But when someone tells me the book stopped them from committing suicide, that scares me. Who am I, to save somebody’s life?”
In 1774, German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” wherein the titular character kills himself with a pistol while dressed in yellow pants and a blue jacket. Besides catapulting the young Goethe to instant literary fame, the novel also sent young men to their self-inflicted deaths in spades: same weapon, same outfit. To this day, when copycat suicides spread throughout a region, it is referred to as “The Werther Effect.”
As a literary device, death offers readers a route into the text, being a convenient way to ratchet up tension and stakes. And characters who die need not be particularly interesting for readers to understand their death’s effect in a story.
Life is not so easy to affirm in a novel. Characters must be well-rounded and real for readers to understand that their lives matter. And to take the extra step of self-identifying with the character, readers must be able to see themselves reflected in the character’s struggle.
People die without having ever seen themselves reflected in a work of art. Their lives could have been more (as all of ours could be): more beautiful, more experienced, more understood, had they found a foil within literature, a mirror with which to accept themselves the way amputees use mirrors to correct phantom limb pain. But this is not so easy to find, and it is far, far harder to create.
The answer to Hinton’s question, “Who am I?” is simple: an artist.
I don’t like the idea that artists are beholden to their fans to provide certain answers about life, and I don’t think Hinton does either. And yet, the relationship remains. Readers take to heart what books say and how they say it, often with more heed than they would give their loved ones. (Ponyboy, from “The Outsiders,” is like this. He barely understands or listens to his eldest brother, yet can recite Robert Frost from memory.) The artist’s unacknowledged obligations to a reader are moral, and many, even most, fail. But “The Outsiders” succeeds.
When Hinton’s talk at Circle Cinema ended, she came into the lobby to sign the new 50th anniversary edition of the book: a gorgeous black-bound hardback with gold lettering. The attendees with tickets wore bright green wristbands and looks of eagerness so palpable the event could have been a pop concert.
A guy in all black sat down next to me. His name was Joe, and he didn’t have tickets either. We talked as the queue streamed by, both of us outsiders at the “Outsiders” event. He revealed that, back in the eighties, he was an extra in the movie, during the “rumble” scene. His black mustache spread wide as he smiled talking about it.
“I got all those actors to sign my book, the paperback,” he said. “Got Susie’s [Hinton’s] autograph too. I didn’t ask for Tom Cruise’s, though; to be honest, I didn’t think he’d make it as a movie star.”
We laughed about it. I think most of us see ourselves as one kind of outsider or another. (Even Tom Cruise was B-list in Joe’s eyes.) That’s why the book has such a lasting appeal; that’s why it can stay the hand with a gun, or a bottle of pills.
By the end of the book, Ponyboy finally decides to own himself—his identity as an outsider—and his story. That’s his effect, and it’s as good as gold.
For more from Zack, read his article on writer John Wooley.